Like many of us, Oliver Poilevey, Jonathan Zaragoza, and Amer Abdullah learned to cook at their parents’ sides. But one small difference: Their family kitchens were actually notable Chicago restaurants. Now chefs themselves, these children of local culinary figures are already leaving their own mark on the city’s food scene.
“I can always hear my old man when I’m cooking,” Poilevey says. “ ‘Oh, I don’t know if I would do that.’ ” It’s easy to understand why his father, Jean-Claude, looms large: Until his death in 2016, he ran Bucktown’s beloved French bistro Le Bouchon with his wife, Susanne. So when Poilevey and his brother, Nicolas, a wine director, opened Obelix (700 N. Sedgwick St., River North) in May, he understood that their vision couldn’t — and shouldn’t — be separated entirely from their family history. “We wanted to do our own take on French restaurants,” he says, “but at the same time, we’re still our parents’ children, and there are a lot of things we were lucky that they taught us.”
At Obelix, he honors that legacy by serving a handful of Le Bouchon signature dishes, like onion gratin soup. Some of the revamped menu’s most memorable offerings, though, like a seared foie gras taco and fish-sauce-laced steak tartare, might have given his classicist father pause. Still, Poilevey believes his dad would have come around. He thinks on that little voice again: “Sometimes I make something he might not have liked, but then he might’ve tasted and said, ‘Oh, this is actually really good.’ I can hear that too.”
For Jonathan Zaragoza, family life when he was young largely revolved around a single thing: birria tatemada, a Jalisco specialty of steamed, chile-rubbed goat and bright tomato consomme. His father, Juan, founded Birrieria Zaragoza as a scrappy underground restaurant in the family’s Southwest Side backyard. Everyone in the clan had a role; as a 12-year-old, Zaragoza tended the outdoor oven’s fire. “It was a very collaborative effort,” he remembers. “It showed me what could be accomplished when people work together.”
Two decades later, Zaragoza devotes much of his time to solo projects that allow him to flex his creativity. He’s developed recipes for food companies like Molino Tortilleria and Foxtrot and staged pop-ups everywhere from Tijuana to London. And on Fridays this fall, he’s popping up somewhere very familiar. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Birrieria Zaragoza’s Archer Heights brick-and-mortar opening, he’ll be at the restaurant hosting Backyard Bites, an outdoor event featuring dishes like coal-roasted al pastor and earthy enmoladas. It may be his food on the menu, but he sees it as a tribute to those early years collaborating with his family on the dish they love most. “All success is a shared success at Zaragoza, because it’s our last name,” he says.
Hot Chi Chicken & Cones (100 W. 87th St., Chatham; 433 W. Van Buren St., South Loop), a chicken shop with an irreverent streak (see the signature Popeyes Ain’t Shit sandwich, which calls for a fried harissa-glazed chicken thigh), may not seem an obvious successor to the Hyde Park fixture Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, a traditional Palestinian restaurant. But Amer Abdullah, who cofounded the former and grew up working in the latter, sees a shared ethos between the two spots. Before his father, Sudki, opened Cedars 30 years ago, he’d tinker with his falafel recipe over a camp stove in the stockroom of his grocery store. Sometimes the fire department shut him down. “He’d sit on a milk crate with a lit Marlboro in his mouth, no ventilation hood,” Abdullah recalls. “I was learning all the safety things I shouldn’t do. But from a creative perspective, I learned a ton from him.”
When his father died in 2019, Abdullah and his brother, Mutaz, took over Cedars. To get by during the pandemic, Abdullah whittled the restaurant’s lengthy menu to just a handful of items. Then, with the same mix of enthusiasm and improvisation that had driven his dad, he drafted chef friends and Cedars’ staff into brainstorming sessions, producing new dishes like lamb barbacoa tacos with harissa tahini. Their experiments also generated a fried chicken wrap that would eventually evolve into Hot Chi’s Middle East–meets–Nashville sandwiches. Abdullah swapped the wrap for a brioche bun, swiped on garlicky toum sauce, and piled on sumac onions. He noodled in the back until it was perfect, just as his dad would have done.